The pressures of being a teenager are overwhelming. We are always told that we have more responsibilities than kids, but we lack the maturity of adults, leaving us in the Twilight Zone of adolescent angst. We start our days by rolling out of bed at the crack of dawn, dragging ourselves to first period, stumbling through Calculus problems, trudging through chemistry labs and lumbering through Spanish tests. After seven grueling hours of classes, it only feels as though the day has just begun. Next we have sports, band rehearsal, drama club … you name it. What’s more, we have a pile of homework to look forward to for the rest of the night, tedious chores, and some of us even have paid jobs to go to. We pass out in our beds, exhausted, until we wake up to repeat the humdrum process day after day. As if being physically drained is not enough,w e are constantly bombarded with big decisions about our futures. When you get to be my age, college applications, letters of recommendation and ACT scores swim around the brain in a cloud of confusion. Every day we have to survive the wild jungle of the high school social scene. We try to find ourselves and discover the young adults we are becoming. Our lives are full to the point of exploding.
So how can we teenagers possibly have a moment to spare for volunteerism?
In truth, teenagers can be notorious for being self-centered. We are at such a critical time in our lives, and sometimes we lose touch with the world around us. It’s a bit of a shame, and often times this makes it difficult for teens to get involved in volunteerism at all. On top of that, the prospect of any free time is either exploited by typical teenager laziness, personal fun and entertainment, and even for the more ambitious, a legitimate job, made worthwhile with a consistent salary. We are teenagers, can you blame us? What more can be asked of us?
From what I’ve learned and experienced of youth leaders and my fellow peers, the answer, quite simply is: very much. And not only that, but WE can ask more of OURSELVES. When the aspiration, inspiration, and initiative come from the youth community, we can achieve more than there ever was thought possible.
With my own personal experiences with volunteerism, I can account for two aspects: the effect to be had on the community, and the personal sense of achievement acquired. I volunteered at a political office this past election season, and I worked with a primarily adult team. When youth become involved with political activism, our sense of community and trust with generations ahead of us strengthens, and we also develop a sense of responsibility for issues we will inherit in years to come. We are educated about the lives and opinions of other citizens, and educate others on issues facing all Americans.
Youth volunteers can connect with others in a unique way that others can’t. Academic tutoring is a tremendous way to connect with younger students, not only helping them improve in school, but also by acting as a role model, both of which I consider to be equally important and effective. As president of my high school’s chapter of National Honor Society, I make it a priority to reach out to students as old as my own age, to students as young as elementary age. The advantage we have as youth is that we can speak to the common struggles that all students go through. We understand that students spend all day listening to their teachers, so when we tutor, we do our best to relate as fellow classmates and seek out practical solutions to problems. The true reward of volunteering in this way is the positive effect we see in those our age. This positive effect is often times contagious and the best source of youth activism. When students see that people just like them can not only succeed, but also help OTHERS succeed, the impact is powerful. Leaders create new leaders, and the cycle of volunteerism continues.
Working magic in our communities is very possible, but getting youth to understand and apply their potential is often a challenge. Even if there is a will to serve the community in any way, young persons can sometimes lack the courage and confidence to believe that they can make a difference. Our duty now is to spread the message that no effort is too small, no good deed is wasted. Every act of volunteerism must start somewhere, with someone, and getting involved is easier than we think. Inspiration to serve the community is always more effective than pressure to serve the community, and as the Yiddish proverb goes, “The man who gives little with a smile gives more than the man who gives much with a frown.” So, as the lives of youth continue to be hectic and busy, we must prove that volunteerism is possible and reaps monumental benefits for all those involved. Our goal is to promote the holistic benefits of community service, as opposed to the mere principle of it. Our work is never done, but from my own experiences with church community rehabilitation projects, tutoring, political activism, this is a good thing. We always have something to reach for, to strive for, and the continual effort can only get better, involving more and more youth, and working more and more magic in our communities.
Anneliese Paik is a senior at Shawnee High School. She was named the Lima Exchange Club Youth of the Year. This is a copy of the essay she submitted as part of the competition.